Lucy Burns was a versatile and pivotal figure within the National Woman’s Party (NWP). With distinctive flame-red hair that matched her personality and convictions, she was often characterized as a charmer and a firebrand–and the crucial support behind her friend Alice Paul’s higher-profile leadership.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to an Irish Catholic family, Burns was a brilliant student of language and linguistics. She studied at Vassar College and Yale University in the United States and at the University of Berlin in Germany (1906-8). While a student at Oxford College in Cambridge, England, Burns witnessed the militancy of the British suffrage movement.
Burns set her academic goals aside and in 1909 became an activist with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She perfected the art of street speaking, was arrested repeatedly, and was imprisoned four times. From 1910 to 1912 she worked as a suffrage organizer in Scotland.
Burns met Alice Paul in a London police station after both were arrested during a suffrage demonstration outside Parliament. Their alliance was powerful and long-lasting. Returning to the United States (Paul in 1910, Burns in 1912), the two women worked first with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as leaders of its Congressional Committee. In April 1913 they founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), which evolved into the NWP. Burns organized campaigns in the West (1914, 1916), served as NWP legislative chairman in Washington, D.C., and, beginning in April 1914, edited the organization’s weekly journal, The Suffragist.
Burns was a driving force behind the picketing of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration in Washington, D.C., beginning in January 1917. Six months later, she and Dora Lewis–targeting the attention of visiting Russian envoys–attracted controversy by prominently displaying a banner outside the White House declaring that America was not a free democracy as long as women were denied the vote. When Burns participated in a similar action with Katharine Morey later the same month, they were arrested for obstructing traffic. The banners displeased President Wilson and escalated the administration’s response to the picketing.
Burns was arrested and imprisoned six times. Declaring that suffragists were political prisoners, she was among those in the Occoquan Workhouse who instigated hunger strikes in October 1917 and were subsequently placed in solitary confinement. Jailed again when protesting the treatment of the imprisoned Alice Paul, Burns joined Paul and others in another round of Occoquan hunger strikes. Burns was in Occoquan for what became known as the “Night of Terror” on November 15, 1917, during which she was beaten and her arms were handcuffed above her head in her cell. Particularly brutal force-feeding soon followed. After her release, Burns commenced nationwide speaking tours. Unlike Paul, who remained active in the NWP until her death, Burns retired from public campaigns with the success of the 19th Amendment. She spent the rest of her life working with the Catholic Church.
Alice Paul was raised in a well-to-do Quaker family in New Jersey. Her father was a banker and her parents believed highly in the value of education. Paul graduated with a degree in biology from Swarthmore College (1905), an institution that her grandfather helped to found, earned graduate degrees in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., 1907; Ph.D., 1912), and also studied at the Woodbrooke Settlement for Social Work, the University of Birmingham, and the London School of Economics. She earned a bachelor’s in law from Washington College of Law in 1922, and master’s and doctoral law degrees from American University in 1927 and 1928.
While studying and doing social work in England, Paul learned firsthand the confrontational tactics and civil disobedience used by the militant wing of the British suffrage movement. She participated in demonstrations and was jailed for her suffrage activity in London.
Upon her return to the United States in 1910, Paul pressed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to adopt approaches like those used in Britain and advocated activism focused on passing a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote. Beginning with her appointment as chairman of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee in 1912, Paul and a small group of key supporters began a long campaign in Washington, D.C., to secure a national woman suffrage amendment. Central in her early organizing efforts was the famous counter-inaugural suffrage parade mounted on March 3, 1913, in which masses of suffragists from many states filled the streets around the U.S. Capitol, White House, and Treasury Building (See Historical Overview and Detailed Chronology [PDF]).
Paul’s belief in the need to attract publicity and keep suffrage visible in the public eye, as well as her determination not to shy away from confrontation and her dogged focus on a federal amendment, led to an irreconcilable break with NAWSA in February 1914. From that time on, Paul worked for suffrage through her own organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), which she and Lucy Burns founded in April 1913 while still serving on NAWSA’s Congressional Committee. The CU became the National Woman’s Party, with which Paul was affiliated until her death.
Like her Quaker hero Susan B. Anthony, Paul single-mindedly pursued a woman suffrage amendment. In the same way that Anthony inspired her, Paul became a role model for other activists who were emboldened by her defiance of authority. In October 1917 she was sentenced to seven months in prison for her role in picketing the Wilson White House. Her subsequent hunger strike led prison officials to retaliate with psychiatric evaluation and force-feeding.
Paul was an ingenious strategist and inspiring leader who gave a public face to the NWP. After 1920 she turned her efforts to the Equal Rights Amendment, which she first proposed at a NWP convention in 1923. She lived to see the ERA passed by Congress in 1972.
Paul’s most important contribution after winning suffrage was building effective international networks among women. She founded the World Woman’s Party in 1938. After World War II, Paul worked to ensure that equal rights for men and women were part of the United Nations platform. She also sought to include sex discrimination as a category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul died at the age of 92 at a nursing care facility in Moorestown, New Jersey, endowed by her family.